On one level, both same-sex and mixed-sex relationships function similarly. When we fall deeply in love and form a long term relationship with someone we are creating a bond with someone who we hope will be there for us in times of trouble and in times of happiness.
Yet, there are still many parts of society that treat same sex attraction and same sex relationships different than heterosexual bonding. In a recent study Khaddouma and colleagues from the University of Tennessee identified how these societal factors can create unique stresses for gay and lesbian relationships.
So, what are some of these factors and what can be done if they arise in my relationship?
Depression is linked to relationship instability in all relationships, but LGBTQ people have historically been more likely to experience depression over the course of the lifespan than heterosexual individuals. It is not being gay or lesbian that causes the depression, but rather the difficulties that arise from stresses like needing to hide one's identity in the face of potential discrimination or violence.
If you or your partner is acting depressed, seek the help of a primary care physician or mental health professional. It is good to talk to your partner about depression and let him or her know how you are feeling and that you care about the well being of the relationship.
External support for marriage and couple-hood is essential for the smooth functioning of the relationship. One important source of social support is your network of friends, colleagues, and neighbors. When a couple feels validated and supported by the people in their environment, the relationship is easier to maintain. When friends and colleagues either don't know about or don't support the couple as an entity, then pressures builds and causes stress.
For example, if your job does not provide time off to care for a sick domestic partner, then the anxiety of having to choose between an income or a partner's care can lead to feelings of confusion and sometimes resentment or regret.
Family support is another important indicator of relationship stability. Recognition from parents of siblings of the relationship and its importance in our lives reinforces positive feelings associated with being a couple. The thought of meeting in-laws for the first time would make anyone anxious, but in my office I frequently see couples who return from family events re-energized in their commitment to being a couple. When families recognize and embrace same sex partners and spouses we feel more connected and safer with each other.
Specific Factors for Female Couples
The researchers found some factors that were more predictive of relationship instability in female relationships than in male relationships. These findings surprised me.
First, sexual identity confusion was found to correlate more strongly with relationship instability in females than in males. Sexual identity confusion is regarded as the extent to which a person is uncertain or not confident about her sexual orientation. The authors propose that the communal orientation of women makes it more stressful when a person isn't sure or her sexual identity. It might become more difficult to relate authentically to one's community if identity is uncertain.
Second, and even more surprising to me, concerned the availability of suitable alternative partners. Basically, when deciding to end a relationship we can consciously or unconsciously weigh the costs of leaving the relationship (what will I lose if the relationship ends) against the availability of other partners (how quickly could I expect to replace the relationship). The study found that members of lesbian pairs are more likely to consider ending the relationship when other options are easily available.
In my own practice, I have not found the second finding to be true. In fact, among lesbian couples who visit my office they tend to take longer to make the decision to end the relationship and are willing to spend more time working on the relationship, even when alternative partners are making their availability known.
Source: Khaddouma, A., Norona, J. C., Whitton, S. W. (2015). Individual, couple, and contextual factors associated with same-sex relationship instability. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol 4(2), Jun 2015, 106-125. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cfp0000043